What Do We Need to Get More Women in STEM? 7 Experts Weigh In

Teacher and students work on drone at STEM school

When it comes to the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — it’s not exactly a secret that there is a disproportionately small amount of women. Recent Glassdoor research highlighted this problem after looking at the gender breakdown between college majors — many technical fields of study are overwhelmingly male-dominated, such as Mechanical Engineering (89 percent male), Civil Engineering (83 percent male), Physics (81 percent male), Computer Science and Engineering (74 percent male), and Electrical Engineering (74 percent male). And this, in turn, is a major driver of the gender pay gap, as these majors often lead to lucrative, highly in-demand career paths.

We know some of the reasons why women are underrepresented in these fields — the need to seek parental approval for their studies, preconceived gender stereotypes, implicit bias in the classroom and on the part of recruiters/hiring managers — but what can we do to actually counter them in order to get more women involved in STEM fields? We asked and gathered quotes from a variety of women involved in tech — here’s what they had to say.

1. Emotionally connect to women through stories of success

I went to school for engineering, and there were so few women in my engineering class, it was amazing to me. I think the easiest way to get more women in STEM is to provide them with stories and experiences that backtrack themselves into STEM — so if you were to tell them a story about groundbreaking research, that’s intriguing, then you back it into ‘and this wouldn’t have happened if these women weren’t involved in STEM.’ Women are very tied to achievement, results, feeling connected to the accomplishment of the work that they’re doing. So telling stories about great work and then saying ‘Oh by the way, this couldn’t have happened without women in STEM’ is better than leading with ‘We want you to check out these great women in STEM!’ because that doesn’t lead to emotional connection. It’s happening more and more often [to see women in STEM], but if we don’t tell stories of the cool things they’re accomplishing and changing, we’re not going to hook more women into it.” – J.T. O’Donnell, Founder & CEO of career advice site Work It Daily

2. Make diversity and inclusion a primary goal, not an afterthought

It’s important to note that a company is not only the products they sell, but the culture that is built inside. [At Slack], we’ve been very deliberate from the beginning to build a diverse and inclusive culture. What that specifically means is diversity and inclusion are priorities when hiring, and they are everyone’s priorities. So there’s not just one dedicated person to think of diversity and inclusion, it’s all of us. It’s a very fundamental part of our workplace and all of the policies and processes we’ve instituted. I think that during very rapid growth, it can be tempting to put some of the priorities around diversity and inclusion aside, [but] that is something we’ve ensured does not happen. Even though we’re growing at a rapid rate and hiring people across the board, especially within engineering, we’re willing to make sacrifices to find the right people for those roles knowing that they may come from a different background.” – Julia Grace, Head of Infrastructure Engineering at Slack

3. Make sure senior-level hires are gender diverse

“People think diversity is about recruiting and hiring, so they’ll stick it over in HR and be done with it. It’s usually kept very far away from the CEO. If your mandate is not coming from senior leadership, though, your ability to create a truly diverse staff and an inclusive culture plummets… I’m not looking for CEOs to know how to [drive diversity initiatives themselves] yet, but what this sector needs is CEOs who clear the path for experts to come in and do the work. In coming to GitHub, one of my requests was that I report directly to the CEO, and I do. It clears a path for my team to explain what we’re trying to do and get the resources we need, and it indicates to the company that this is as important of a business initiative as finance, sales, engineering, etc., which has allowed us to recruit a much more diverse crowd of people than ever.” – Nicole Sanchez, VP of Social Impact at GitHub

4. Get executive buy-in and don’t give in to impostor syndrome

“I would say promoting diversity within the company. That’s what many companies have been doing, but it has to be even greater with more representation at each level — not just the entry level, but also as high as those executive positions, including CEOs and CTOs. I would [also] tell young women to not give up. There are going to be plenty of challenges and there’s no use getting stuck on them, because if they do, they’ll just be hindering themselves from achieving their dream. I’d tell them to go ahead and define their goal and just continue to reach for it and never retract back.” – Tiera Guinn, incoming Rocket Structural Design and Analysis Engineer at Boeing

5. More exposure, fewer misconceptions

“One of the biggest things [we need] is more exposure. A simple thing I’d love to see is middle schools and high schools teaching coding. I didn’t realize I’d like coding until I did it — it was very different from a lot of other things you do in school. Then I’d say we need more role models. Studies have shown it’s really impactful to see people who look like you in positions [you’re interested in]. We also need to get rid of misconceptions. There’s this idea that coding involves sitting at a desk all day… but coding is inherently a teamwork [initiative]. You’re not building something independently.” – Gayle Laakmann McDowell, author of Cracking the Coding Interview: 189 Programming Questions and Solutions

6. Emphasizing the value of the field, not just the careers

“Education is not avocation: While coding is a critical skill for work in the computer-science field, more fundamentally, it’s also a way of ordering ideas. Coding conditions one’s mind to consider problems and challenges creatively, much in the same way that calculus, physics, philosophy and art history impart different ways of thinking about and processing information. It’s a skill that serves everyone well. The message we need to convey is not that girls (or boys) should study computer science as a narrow means to a career end – rather, that the study of computer science is intellectually exciting and stimulating in its own right. It opens the mind to new ways of thinking and problem-solving. – Reshma Saujani, CEO and founder of Girls Who Code, and Brian O’Kelley, CEO & co-founder of AppNexus in a CNBC op-ed

7. Take a data-driven approach to identifying root problems

“…What we actually have to do is measure which of the great things [that universities are] doing are the things that are actually drawing women in. Is it that they changed from Java to Python, is it that they changed the name of the course, is it that they have more associate female professors there, is it real-world problems? They’re all trying different things and some of those things overlap, but no one is really studying what are the elements of these different programs that are really the ones that can pull women in. That can start now.” – Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in an interview with The Atlantic

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